Making Mistakes


If there is one thing I know it is that when you are engaged in the creative process then you need to get comfortable making mistakes and working with them. You never know where a mistake can lead you. What you may think is a mistake may be a pathway to a whole new discovery in your artistic process.

As the writer Annie Lamott says:

“Here's how to break through the perfectionism: make a LOT of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club. Celebrate messes--these are where the goods are.”

It is scary to make a mess—a mess of your life when you know something is wrong—a mess with your art work—getting down and dirty with your work and getting lost in the chaos to come our of the other side with a piece that is dynamic and the way that you want it. Mistakes and messiness force you to be in an unknown territory. You don’t know what the outcome will be and you are not so comfortable letting go. Like other kinds of practice it is important to put ourselves into artistic spaces that encourage mistakes and messiness and not knowing so that we can practice letting go, getting lost and then make our way out. In ways we could not begin to imagine before we started.  We need to help teach our children and our students that mistakes and messiness is part of learning. That we learn by trial and error and be in a space of openness . In The Drawing Lab I encourage mistakes and messiness. I bring this process approach to the classroom and at times teachers are uncomfortable when I come in—there is no definitive path or right answer. The sketchbooks look “messy” but I believe that thinking is messy, making art is messy, life is messy. We need to get comfortable even in school with making a mess and working through that, thinking through that feeling that messy process. It is about process. What I have found is that the students actually relish the messiness once they get permission from teachers and adults that it is okay to delve in to the messy process of creativity and drawing. 

A vignette:

Walking into the 1st grade classroom, the small faces look up at me with anticipation and wonder. What’s in the box, what will we be doing with her? The desks are in  rows. Word walls, color coded bins and animal posters ring the walls in a 3-D collage of space.

“Hi my name is Deb.”

“Who likes to draw?”

As I hand out their new black sketchbooks and their pencils without erasers, I hear:

“I like to draw cars.”

“I like to draw people.”

“I like to draw butterflies.”

“Are you ready for our first drawing adventure?” I ask

Eyes are wide, pencils ready, the excitement and energy vibrate around me.

I call out the first prompt: “Make a fast line.”

They respond, “what?”

Another voice, “does it need to be this way or that way?”

The teacher asks as he waits to make his mark, “horizontal or vertical?”

Another calls, “you mean like this?”

Many voices add their questions to the invisible pile of worry.

I respond: “Any way you want.”

I have not introduced the “rules of drawing” yet because I want to see where they are at.

After I say “any way you want” the “but” is in the air and the hesitation and I can feel the fear in the room, the invisible force of, “but what if I do it wrong?”

I can feel it. This energy of subtle fear. And I am thinking these are 7 year olds. What can they already be so afraid of when I ask them to draw.

A couple of students dive in and make their fast line and then the rest of the class follows their lead.

The next prompt: “draw a bumpy line.”

And then the call and response,

“like this?”

“Is this okay?”

“Mine is not right.”

“Do you have an eraser?”

None of my pencils that I have handed out have an eraser?” I have to stop them from reaching in their desks for their school pencils with ready erasers. I use these pencils deliberately so the students aren’t erasing everything that they draw and start again. The need to “draw it perfectly” feeds their insecurity. I encourage them to just draw what comes out.

And I say again, “any way you want to draw it is just right.”

One girl sits quietly. Trying to disappear. Not a single mark on the surface of her white paper—“I don’t know what to do.” She whispers, “what if it’s wrong?”

“It will be okay” I say. “Just try.”

And she just sits there.

She is paralyzed with fear. The idea of making a mistake, of doing it “wrong” in some preconceived way keeps her from trying, from making ONE mark.

She is so small, her feet barely touching the floor. I see in her eyes a girl who is in need of the “rules of drawing” of owning and believing them because the “rules” of school have scared her so much she can’t put a mark on a page without making sure she has got it “right.” I call out to the class, “it’s impossible to make a mistake, just follow your own idea, follow the lead of your pencil, see where your line will take you.” I add, “when I come and visit your class and we draw there are no mistakes. You can’t do it wrong!"

I see this young black haired, wide eyed girl slowly pick up her green drawing pencil and with the lightest touch carve her bumpy line across the top of her page. A small, neatly executed bumpy line. Her own bumpy line.

This first exercise seemingly simple in design teaches students a lot about their own marks but has also taught me about the fear that lives in many students even very young ones. The fear of doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong.

I think that the most political or radical thing I say in schools is there is NO “wrong” way. I say, “when I draw with you and we are thinking with our pencil then it is through drawing that we find our OWN solutions.”

“Close your eyes and drawing looping lines” I hear some giggles and I see eyes peeking open as they are drawing. But I can feel the energy shift from trepidation to a more playful state of discovery.

As we work our way through the 10 or so prompts I see the students start to break free from their fear. I see that they crave this freedom, from someone saying it is ok, make mess, make some marks or scribbly lines. Drawing is about discovery.

When we finish drawing the different kinds of marks I ask everyone to bring their drawings to the rug area, even the teacher and assistant teacher. Everyone places their drawings in the center of the circle. No one knows who’s is who’s and no one drawing stands out or is better than any other drawing, not even the teachers.

I ask, “What do you SEE?”

Hands shoot up.

“they are scribbly”

“the dark jagged line there takes up the whole page”

“some put the marks in neat rows, others are messy.

“They are all different!”

YES, I say they are all different just like YOU are all different. We all have our OWN special way to draw our lines and our marks, we are ONE OF A KIND.

This is the concrete evidence before us.

We are all different and through drawing these differences can be explored, respected, shared and honored.

And when we draw together no one is better than anyone else and there are no mistakes only pathways to new discoveries. See where your line can take you.

Drawing is a language and the marks are what we use to communicate that language.


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